The Two Compromises Limiting Alt-Protein Product Development

Future proteins, meat alternatives, sustainable proteins. The category of new products entering the market to replace the traditional and unsustainable meat in our diets has many names. Latest big article on the topic calling it the alt-protein sector was released in The Guardian on 30th of April 2018. You can read the article here.

In the article, some of the main players in the industry are interviewed. The main message given by the companies is clear: The most important thing in attracting large audiences and saving the planet is the taste.

“I don’t think mayonnaise, even ours, is healthy at all,” “I’d much rather people have a box of carrots if they are concerned about health, without question.” Josh Tetrick of Just.

“From our perspective, health is not the point,”  Bruce Friedrich of Good Food Institute.

The widely accepted approach shared by the interviewees seems to be that two clear compromises must be accepted in order to introduce these better options for meat eaters.

Compromise no 1: Healthiness

These modern food companies like the interviewed Just and Impossible Foods have a clean slate to do almost anything imaginable in the field of food technology but they have selected a path where healthiness is not the main factor. Is this really the best way? These companies might answer no, but at the same time, it is a must in order to attract large masses. Obviously, everyone would like to do very healthy products, but it has been accepted that as long as the taste is good, health- questions can be put aside.

Compromise no 2: Variety

When looking at companies like Just, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, there is another question that they have accepted as fact: For wide customer base acceptance, their products must resemble known animal-based products they are aiming to replace. The products are aiming to resemble animal-based products not only by taste but also by how they look, feel and smell.

The thinking behind these compromises suggests that it is easier to market people familiar, but inferior product instead of unfamiliar superior one. It is important to notice here that we are not talking here about cost as the motivation for these compromises, but marketing.

These two compromises might be well justified, but they are very limiting from product development’s perspective. The management of these companies are telling their R&D- departments:  “let’s do a sustainable product and tastes good but it must look, feel and taste like this other thing”. When working from the point of view where you are copying something, not making the best possible product, you are incentified to sacrifice not only health but also the optimal environmental impact.

What if the management’s message to R&D would be the following: Let’s do a product that is sustainable, tastes good and is healthy? What kind of amazing products could these companies create if they would work without these listed compromises?

The clean meat industry is a bit different story. Clean meat- companies are not copying animal-based products, they are making the original thing but in a more sustainable way. Producing muscle-cells in bioreactor instead of rearing an animal brings an impressive list of improvements in comparison to the traditional method of producing animal flesh: No manure-derived issues, no use of antibiotics, the end product is free of animal-based pathogens to name a few.

The justification for the need of clean meat products comes from the well-founded assumption that people must have a meat option and to provide that to them the bioreactor way is clearly better way than rearing the full animal.

Clean meat- companies and the “plant-based meat imitators” are in the same line in the way that both want to introduce meat alternative to meat eaters. It is absolutely clear that there is a huge demand for this. In clean meat’s case, we don’t need to think of the issue of the product being familiar or not because the end product is the very same meat we eat today.  In the plant-based product’s case, this conclusion that product quality should be sacrificed for marketing purposes should be seriously questioned. If the imitator- companies follow the chosen path they are bound to find it to be a dead end. Eventually, the clean meat technology matures and the products hit the market shelves with comparable prices to the imitators. At this stage, the plant-based meat imitators have nothing on clean meat when marketing to meat eater audience.

For more detailed comparison of clean meat, plant-based meat imitators and plant-based meat replacements read my earlier blog post here:  https://ilkkataponen.com/2017/07/27/imitators-replacements-and-clean-meat/

 

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Impossible Foods Must Ask Harder Scientific Questions

Techcrunch posted a very interesting interview on 22nd of May 2017, titled “Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown says VCs need to ask harder scientific questions”. After reading the article, I had to check that I wasn’t reading The Onion.

In the interview, Pat Brown attacks the clean meat industry and VCs with claims that were all proven untrue in a great reply by VC Seth Bannon. The aggressive tone of the interview did not bother me as much as the lack of knowledge shown by Mr Brown. Yes, answering the question “Why not try clean meat?” by saying “The simple answer is because that is one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed” already makes you sound like Donald Trump, but when you back up your claim with untrue statements, things start to look very bad.

Mr Bannon did good job at answering the false claims, but I will continue by looking at two additional points of the interview.

Mr Brown said that with clean meat technology, “you buy into, at best, the same limitations that a cow has.” This statement is very interesting when looking at Impossible Foods’ product. The company is trying to mimic meat as much as possible using plant based raw materials. Isn’t this approach buying into the limitations of the cow? It’s possible the company is looking to go beyond meat at some point, but to an outsider it seems that the product development’s main goal is not to make the best tasting or the best nutritional value having product, but a product that looks, tastes and feels like cow. Yes, the way Impossible Foods are aiming to do it is more efficient and ecological cow rearing, but they share the same goal with the clean meat companies.

The second thing that especially struck my eye was Mr Brown’s demand that VCs should ask harder scientific questions to understand e.g. that clean meat “is one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed”. While demanding deeper studying and understanding from VCs, Mr Brown himself obviously has limited understanding of substitute technologies that his own company is using.

I think the founder has more tendency to have skewed view on his or her business than the outsider. Maybe it is actually Impossible Foods and Mr Brown who need to ask the harder scientific questions?

ps. While you are here you might want to read my related post 5 Questions an Investor Should Ask Before Investing into a Insect Farm from June 2015.